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Digital methods help us get to grips with the complexity

Interview with Prof. Cornelia Weltzien

Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering and Bioeconomy (ATB) is a registered association in Potsdam that researches the way biological and technical systems interact in agriculture and nutrition. As the head of the Engineering for Crop Production department, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Cornelia Weltzien together with her team works to develop new technologies and processes for the sustainable, resource-efficient creation of plant-based products. 

The internationally acclaimed top researcher will be taking part in the “Smart & Connected Agrifood” podium discussion at Farm & Food 4.0 in Berlin.

We spoke to her about what sustainable agriculture would look like, and the roles that digital methods play.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Weltzien, what is your vision for sustainable farming? 

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Cornelia Weltzien: “The vision for sustainable farming that we have developed here at the Engineering for Crop Production department (ATB) is based on our 20 years of experience in precision agriculture. Knowledge-based, location-specific and therefore needs-orientated agriculture means that we really know anywhere and at any time what the plants need, what potential the soil has, and how we can achieve an optimal yield – with the fully sustainable use of natural resources.”

What are the potentials of digital methods in terms of agriculture? 

“I think digital methods enable us to get to grips with the complexity. Agriculture is an incredibly complex system. We have the natural conditions, we have the technical machines and equipment, and we have different varieties and species which react differently to natural conditions. 

At the moment, we also have to deal with climate change, which reverses everything we have learned over the past century. The system really is extremely complex, and if we want to make it sustainable – with social goals in mind, too – it is almost too much for a single person to handle. With the vast (computing) resources available and with the new machine learning methods, digitalisation can help make complex circumstances easier to understand and easier to manage.”

Where do we stand today and what obstacles do we still have to overcome when using digital solutions in the fields? 

“We are still just starting out with digitalisation. We have developed a lot of wonderful partial solutions, mainly in the fields of sensor technology and classic precision farming, which have resulted in location-specific solutions, but we still have to create a complete system that really connects the different information levels with one another.

The technical hurdles are in the algorithms. The logic for this entire system does not yet exist, and this is where we are challenged heavily as researchers. The legal framework conditions must also be clarified, e.g. who has what rights to which database. Last but not least, we need the technical prerequisites. At the moment, the farming industry has more gaps than reasonable coverage with mobile networks. 

It still remains uncertain whether 5G technology will mean an improvement. When we talk about mobile network coverage, we generally mean villages and roads, and not fields. This is a truly technical network coverage prerequisite that is yet to be achieved.”

Current agriculture relies on yield optimisation. How will ecosystem performance be profitably integrated into data-based management in the future?  

“One of the great hopes we are clinging to is that we will manage to really show social objectives such as ecosystem performance, improved sustainability, and improved human health due to healthy farming, all working within a system. 

For this, we need sensors that are able to display and monitor ecosystem performance. We need documentation systems which can demonstrate that this and that ecosystem output has been considered when creating a product. The potential and the hope is that we will be able to develop and implement such documentation systems with the aid of digital methods.” 

How significant is the Farm & Food 4.0 conference for you, and what do you expect to achieve by participating? 

“For me, Farm & Food 4.0 is a really great forum in which we can network, exchange and meet other experts to inspire each other. The event is also a discussion platform that can extend into politics. Here in Berlin, and due to it being close to International Green Week, it also provides the opportunity to influence the general population. Above all, however, to me it is a network – an exchange with experts and like-minded people.”

Meet Prof. Cornelia Weltzien in Berlin at Farm & Food 4.0 on 21 January 2019. Tickets: https://www.farm-and-food.com/en/register